I came out of my house that morning to find the block deserted. We lived way at the end of a lonely road in the woods with just a few neighbors. Over the last week, we’d gathered in the mornings to talk about the fire, whether we thought it was going to climb farther up the mountains and through our part of the forest. We’d talk about contingency plans and where we might stay. We wondered about insurance.
That morning though, I was alone on the street, my wife in the house with the dogs, trying to find a radio station that had news reports. I wandered down the block to my friends’ houses, looking inside, calling to them.
It was a nice day, maybe seventy five degrees with a light breeze going so that the smoke from the fire was blowing away from our house, leaving the forest silent and beautiful, making everything peaceful. Days that looked like these were the reason we’d moved up to the mountains. And at first glance, the street seemed beautiful too. Windows were open, and radios or televisions played inside. My next door neighbor had left a broom leaning against the front door.
I found out later that they’d left the houses with radios playing and windows open in a desperate bid to fool looters. They wanted their places to seem occupied, but as I came down the road, I could feel the emptiness of the houses. I could feel the lack of people. It was as though all of my neighbors, maybe everyone in the world, had been plucked up and taken away mid-chore, and only my wife and I had been spared, and we were left to wander around confused and lonely.
It was only later that I was told the police had come down the street announcing the evacuation. I’d missed the whole thing. I’d slept right through it, and we were the last to leave.
We knew that we should leave now, and that we should grab anything that mattered and go. It was then that I learned what really mattered to me.
My wife mattered. My dogs mattered. My writing mattered.
That was it. I took some clothes, the dogs, my wife and the computers, and I drove away realizing that I didn’t care about anything else. It could all burn, and everything would still be all right.
It was an important lesson to learn. It’s taken me about ten years now to fully understand what that means. All of that was reinforced a few years later by the housing market crash and a financially difficult time. The house was spared because firefighters are courageous, talented, and self-sacrificing. But I’ve given up just about everything I’ve owned, and I don’t care. We’ve gone from living in big houses and working all the time to maintain them, finally to where we are now, which is a tiny studio apartment on the beach.
We could certainly afford a bigger place, but there isn’t a thing in my house that matters except for my wife. When it comes down to it, the only thing that matters to me are my passions. And I don’t need or want a big place to fulfill them.